Can DeLay Regain His Post?

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JASON REED / REUTERS

UNDER FIRE: Tom DeLay

Though the legal outlook brightened Monday for Tom DeLay when a Texas judge threw out one of three campaign finance charges against him, the political forecast remains cloudy for the former House Majority Leader to regain his leadership post when Congress returns to Washington in January. The decision by Judge Pat Priest to toss conspiracy allegations against DeLay but let stand two felony money laundering indictments means the case will likely drag on into next year, a ruling that will make it difficult for DeLay to reclaim his job before it’s given to someone else. Many Congressional Republicans are unhappy with the temporary arrangement that has Missouri’s Roy Blunt acting as Majority Leader and are concerned about the ever-growing shadow of the Justice Department investigation of Jack Abramoff, a lobbyist connected to DeLay.

“I don't know too many Republicans who are really worried about the legal case at this point," Jason Smith, a Houston lawyer, political consultant and blogger, told TIME. "The political case—that's a problem." Interest in the case is so high that Smith's blog crashed following news of the ruling when The Drudge Report linked to it.

DeLay defense attorney Dick DeGuerin is expected to present more pre-trial challenges before the year is out, including pressing for a hearing on charges of prosecutorial misconduct. But Texas District Attorney Ronnie Earle now has 15 days to appeal the judge's ruling and Priest has said there will be no court action until Dec. 20 and likely no trial before January.

Hours after the judge’s ruling, DeLay hosted Vice President Dick Cheney at a Houston hotel for a $500-a-plate fundraiser. But while the congressman still has the backing of the Bush Administration, his support is slipping at home—a new Gallup poll finds that just 36 percent of registered voters in DeLay’s district said they would support him in November's election—and he faces an uphill climb with his party. "He's tough, ready for a fight," DeGuerin told TIME. "Some clients I have to build some starch in, but I didn't have to with him." The question for DeLay is whether he can persuade his congressional colleagues to come along.